Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Another Mother's Day

January 21.  On this day, seventy-eight years ago, 1936, my grandmother—my father’s mother—Nora Lilley Grant died at the age of sixty-one.  Umm, that’s merely a year older than I am now.  Also on this day, forty-five years ago, 1969, my mother, Birdie Louise Jamison Grant, died, at age forty-seven.  One can only imagine what this date signified for my father:  the two women he loved the most dying on the same date.  He survived my mother nineteen years, so for eighteen anniversaries of this date, he contemplated the strange workings of fate or blind chance. 
Birdie Grant and Lyman Jr.
            When I look at a photograph of my mother, I think about what a pretty woman she was, and at how enchanted my father must have been by her. She was a little thing, just over five tall, with a heart-shaped face, high cheek bones, and brown wavy hair.  She had skinny legs and a full bosom. They met in 1943 in Nashville, Tennessee, where my mother had lived her entire life. My mother was twenty-two; my father was thirty-two. If I remember the story correctly, she was working in some low-level function for the Internal Revenue Service when my father, a First Lieutenant, approached her desk to secure a form or something, and then fireworks and music and all such good things.  By November, she was pregnant.  The only problem was she was married.  Ooops. 
            At some point in 1942 or 1943, my mother had married a man named Frank Luciano, from Altoona, Pennsylvania.  How they met or what their relationship was like, we have no idea.  My sisters and I didn’t even know our mother had been previously married until after she had died, and the topic was clearly verboten as far as my father was concerned.  All we learned from my father was that our mother had met Frank in the early years of the war, as he trained in Nashville.  They married.  Any conjecture about what he was like just leads us into cultural stereotypes. Tall, dark, and handsome, etc. etc.   But we do know that at some point, Birdie Jamison Luciano, traveled north to meet her in-laws, who had immigrated from Italy just before the turn of the century,  and discovered that she was not capable of bridging the cultural gulfs between her Southern Scots-Irish heritage and Frank’s first generation Italo-American cultural practices.  His parents did not speak English, and they expected her to become Catholic.  Fairly soon after their marriage, he shipped out and eventually served in the Pacific Front. Birdie Luciano continued to live with her grandparents and aunt (her mother had died giving birth to her) on Spring Street under where the highway passes through Nashville today.   
On Saturday, March 4, 1944, my mother, pregnant with my sister Diane, received the divorce papers, signed by her husband overseas, registered them with Davidson Country, and drove to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, with my father, and in the afternoon married. A divorcee, perhaps all of three hours.  The marriage papers in Kentucky state that she was single.  My father’s sister, Helen, and her husband, Lowell, whom I called Uncle Weed, drove down from Marion, Illinois, to serve as witnesses and to help celebrate.  Birdie fit right in, and Weed especially appreciated what he called my mother’s “Go to Hell Hat.”  I am not so sure what that means, but I understand that we Grant men appreciate happy, confident, sexy women.  
The American Family, circa 1955

Our mother died six weeks short of her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary; however, she and our father always, as a kind of a ruse and perhaps as a sentimental gesture celebrated their anniversary on her birthday in October.  The romantic in me wishes to create a story that they first made love on her birthday and that was the anniversary they honored.  No matter.  For twenty-four or twenty-five years, they lived the American dream.  In Nashville, then Birmingham, then Temple, Texas, they purchased brick homes in new neighborhoods.  They had children:  two daughters eighteen months apart in the forties, then me, the son, named Lyman Jr., in 1953.  We all went to good public schools.  We all have college degrees; in fact, we all have graduate degrees.  My father remained in the reserves after the war, eventually becoming a Lieutenant Colonel, while he worked his way up the administrative ladder in Veterans Administration hospitals.  My mother bolstered his ego, saved the money he made, kept a clean and orderly home, created tasty meals, raised the children, and kept the social calendar.    I am a little surprised—I don’t know why—but no wonder Ozzie and Harriet and Donna Reed and Barbara Billingsly seem so familiar to me in reruns.  Our family was never wealthy enough for the Country Club, and my father was too penurious to spend his cash on status.  But every five years, we bought a new car, and on three-day weekends and for two weeks in the summer, we hit the road for vacations.  (Wonder where I got the idea to travel the US?)  When our mother wasn’t sewing dresses for my sisters, and a few shirts for me—I remember clearly the patterns laid out on fabrics on the floor as my mother, and later my sisters, scissored the pieces of the dress to be—she played bridge with the other ladies, participated in the neighborhood garden club, and, while I played Little League, kept the concession stand organized.
I have no proof, but I have gut feeling that my mother preferred being a mother to girls than to boys.  It just seems that she enjoyed the emotional and social trajectory of girls, the negotiations and trials of becoming a respectable lady in the late fifties and early sixties, sororities in high school, sororities in college, teas, white gloves, spotless reputations, and all that.  And while she never missed a baseball game, it occurs to me that she had enough tender Grant male ego to contend with in my father, and that the temptations for me to become a “Hood,” as we called juvenile delinquents in my day, were more troublesome than intriguing. Anyway, at a certain point, a son is supposed to pass into emotional light of the father.  The problem was that my father’s love-light shown a bit too harshly as Lyman Jr.  began developing into a separate Lyman, and I did my best to step out of his spotlight.   Still, I say again, I have no proof for any of this. The fact is that she died when I was fifteen, before the mistakes I was making could be corrected, shown to be careless rough drafts and not final copy. 
In my thirties, I had two “awakening” moments concerning my mother.  The first was that my mother’s death dramatically changed the direction of my life. My father’s dream for me, and I assume my mother’s, was that I would attend college, play baseball, major in business, participate in ROTC,  and when I graduated, my father would pin his old First Lieutenant bars on my shoulders.  Lyman Jr., indeed.  The season she died, I quit playing baseball and began messing around with writing poems.  Three years later, when I went to the University of Texas, I did plan on majoring in business, but I would have nothing to do with ROTC.  I pledged and was initiated into a fraternity, but soon quit.  As the semesters passed, I continued to drop my business classes and enroll in more literature.  I believe that if my mother had not died, she, in her gentle, loving way, would have found the language to guide me, encourage me, entice me, to enlist, remain in the fraternity, and complete degrees in business, perhaps continue to an MBA, maybe law school.  At the time, that was certainly a possible future for me.  I am conservative enough, in a traditional way, to believe I could have been happy with the future that young man might have had.  A lot of men I respect followed that path.
My Sister, The Queen Bee, with her most recent grandchild

The second revelation is she and my father lived a love story, a tragic one as it ended with her dying of cancer, but for twenty-four of their twenty-five years together, it was a magical and juicy one.  For about twenty years, I thought my mother’s death was, and would always be, the most important event in my life.  In high school, I felt that I was marked.  I was the kid whose mother had died; I was the kid growing up with just one parent, and one who did not like him very much.  In college, it was my secret.  In my twenties, it was the thing I told girlfriends.  It made me dark and mysterious, the wounded one, the poet.  Then in my mid-thirties, in a flash of light kind of revelation, it hit me that my mother’s death was the most important event in her and my father’s lives.   It was their destiny, their life map, not mine.  I just happen to be a secondary character in their script.  Her death was one early event in my long life that I had the opportunity to create.  That day, a creature, very large and hungry, left the house
Birdie Elizabeth Pedraza

A few other things I remember about this long ago woman.  I can see her sitting in the dirt in front of one of our recently purchased house planting plugs of grass to start a lawn.  She sits at a table with highball in her hand, smiling, laughing with family.  Salty dogs.  Tom Collins.  She almost steps into the path of bus before my father pulls her back.  We sit in the Mercury at the Chuck Wagon in Temple after sixth grade drinking cherry cokes.  We discover Whataburger on a trip to Odessa for the state championship in Little League.  She makes my favorite meal for a birthday:  fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and lemon meringue pie.  She adds egg noodles to a Thanksgiving menu because I requested it.  One night when she catches junior high kids “papering my house” she seems so, so proud.  She smiles patiently at me when I drip tomato soup on her shirt while feeding her in bed.  She frowns disappointedly when she pulls me out of Travis Junior High the day the police discovered I had broken into a neighbor’s empty house.  She types a science fair report for me.  She tramps through a creek bed to collect algae for a project I had ignored.  She sits on a towel on the white sand of Florida Beach.  In the passenger seat of the car, with a map in her lap, she offers directions to my father.  She hands us boiled eggs and slices of cheese and sweet pickles from the cooler in the car.  She takes a photograph of me when she thinks I look like Huckleberry Finn.  We go to a movie theater in Temple to see Cleopatra.  She attempts to whip me with one of my father’s belts, but I take it away and say she will never whip me again.  She and I watch The Beverly Hillbillies together.  She always makes popcorn before Gunsmoke starts. She includes hominy when she makes “breakfast for dinner.” She sings along with Eddy Arnold records.  She purchases my first 45 record, Andy Williams sings “In the summer time, when all the trees and leaves are green.”  In her final days, she makes sure I know she loves me, something I occasionally forget. 
A couple of Mackdaddy's Ladies
So forty-five years ago today my mother, Birdie Louise Jamison (Luciano) Grant, died in Scott and White Hospital in Temple, Texas.  Nine days ago, Birdie Elisabeth Pedraza, was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Eighteen days ago, we left the embrace of family after an extended stay with my second sister, the Queen Bee, grandmother to Birdie.  Sixteen days ago, Knightsmama’s father survived a stroke, and we headed back to Texas.  If our trip were progressing as planned, today Knightsmama, the boys, and I would be parked in Southern Florida getting ready to drive out on the Keys.  Instead, Knightsmama is spending days and nights at Baylor Institute of Rehabilitation in Dallas helping care for Mackdaddy as he heals and recovers.  Meanwhile the boys and I occupy ourselves with math homework, reading, and writing, with the care and feeding of Mackdaddy’s two dogs and nine cattle.   Now that he knows how to drive a Big Ass Truck with a Monster attached, Dr. J. is learning how to drive a tractor and move huge hay bales.  We are all watching too much television.
Dr. J. Moving Hay

As soon as I finish writing this paragraph, Dr. J. and I will wander down to the front pasture and refit a tractor tire that we had repaired yesterday.  I’ll return to the house and make lunches, continue with the rounds of washing clothes.  At five o’clock, the boys, who say they have grown tired of the road, will fall into the numbing and stupefying arms of a big screen television.  I will sit on the porch, watch the sunset, and with a cup of decafe, toast the memory of my mother.  I think she would understand that I will be wishing that, instead, I were drinking a salty dog somewhere west of Miami, with Knightsmama, living our own love story.

Soundtrack.  Eddy Arnold:  "Bouquet of Roses."

Sunday, January 12, 2014


January 2.  Following our much appreciated respite from the road at The Honey Comb Inn, owned and operated by my sister The Queen Bee in the outskirts of the thriving metropolis of Pittsboro, North Carolina, we attached the big ass truck to the monster and rolled out of town toward Wilmington.  Knightsmama and I have half-baked dreams of spending my twilight years in the Tar Heel state.  We love the Carolina beaches, and I believe I still have the chance to fulfill my destiny as a beach bum.  We love our friends Todd and Meg Hoke, who uprooted themselves from Austin several years ago and planted themselves in Hendersonville.  And we love my sister and brother-in-law, their sons and daughters, and sons-in-laws, and great nieces.
Major Dude and Queen Bee
Actually, at this moment, there is only one great niece in the region, but within a week or two, we will welcome the second.  My niece Elizabeth Pedraza is, as we used to say, “with child,” and as my father might have said, “ready to pop.”  She has decided to name her daughter “Birdie.” It is an old-fashioned name, quite popular at the turn of the century.  In our family, the name appears in two generations.  My grandmother Birdie Louise Adams was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, living there between 1901-1921.  She married Forrest Bedford Jamison, of Franklin, as a teenager, gave birth to one son, Forrest, Jr., and on October 8, 1921, died following the birth of my mother, Birdie Louise Jamison. My sisters and I have kept alive several of the Grant-Jamison names, but “Birdie” never seemed appropriate for Gen X or Y or Z.  We kept the names “Elizabeth,” “Louise,” and William in several generations. I even dared attach my very old-fashioned “Lyman” to a son as a middle name.  Captain Crunch, being the youngest of my parents’ grandchildren, inherited a name I was afraid our side of the family might forget, “Jamison,” and was the first to be named ‘Mack” after Knightsmama’s daddy.   Then Liz decided to rescue “Birdie.”  I admit, when she told us over the holidays, I teared up.  My mother, her grandmother, died almost 44 years ago at the young age of forty-seven years.  She left a large and deep hole in our lives.  Birdie Pedraza will help fill it.
So we made our way to Wilmington for a couple of nights mostly to get a feel for it.  Could it be our future home?  The darn problem was that we arrived in a rain storm; then our converter blew, crashing the monster’s electrical system, which meant we spent a chilly night in the belly of the beast.  Friday morning, Knightsmama and I did the adult thing:  we cried and pleaded with a RV repair company, and by noon, there was light and heat, just in time for the temperature to plunge into the twenties.  Still we explored the town a little, roaming to downtown, the community college, the university, the beach and a coffee shop. Because it is a new year and I need to deal with the tire around the belly, I passed Front Street Brewery with averted eyes.   By the time darkness fell, Wilmington was still on the list of possible futures. 

June 4.  By 9:30 in the morning, Waller Grant was rumbling out of town.  The plan was to head south to Charleston, South Carolina, for three days, then down to Savannah for the same amount of time, all to taste a little Southern Aristocracy, then, for some down home Southern hospitality, to veer over to central Georgia and visit the homeland of the Wallers, from whence Mackdaddy, Knightsmama’s father, emerged decades ago.  Mackdaddy himself had recently driven through this territory.  He and his girlfriend had joined us at The Honey Comb Inn for four days wrapped around Christmas.  They had made their way to Charleston, then to Georgia to visit his family, and finally back to Texas where they had arrived the day before.  Word is they stopped for a little gambling in Bossier City where Mackdaddy drove away a full forty dollars richer.
As Knightsmama occasionally does as we leave one city for another, she telephoned Mackdaddy to keep the maps and calendars up to date.  This morning he was feeling a bit out of sorts.  His eye hurt and he had a headache coming on.  Other than that, his day was starting.  I listened in, but kept the monster pointed south.  When Knightsmama hung up (you know we don’t do that literally anymore), I could tell she was troubled. 
“He didn’t sound quite himself,” she said.
The miles slowly passed under us.
Within an hour, she was on the telephone again, following her instincts, checking in with other members of the family, who also keep tabs on their eighty-one year old patriarch.  Piece by piece information drifted in.
Knightsmama’s sister-in-law had talked with him either before or after she had.  It’s hard to determine an exact timeline.
He says this is the worse headache he has ever had.
He threw-up.
He thinks he might have seen blood when he threw-up.
The vision in his right eye is blurry.
The sister-in-law, who lives two hours away, has called Mackdaddy’s girlfriend.
Mackdaddy’s girlfriend is on the way to his house.  She is about twenty minutes away.
Mackdaddy’s girlfriend has called the neighbors to check on him.
These are the same neighbors who had found Knightsmama’s mother on the floor of the den eighteen months ago.
We were still driving down the highway wondering what it is we should be doing.  How serious are things?  Why isn’t anyone calling us and telling us what is happening?  Dr. J. and Captain Crunch sat in the backseat listening to their mother.  I turned around a little and saw the Captain was focusing intently, too intently, on his Kindle and the Mindcraft world he has been living in for the past few months.  I asked if everyone is okay?  Both nodded in a way that told me they didn’t want to go further into this. 
“Look, it is early.  We don’t know what’s happening.  We are still waiting for more information.”  A couple more calls and we learned a little more.  It was past noon at this point, and we were still working our way to Charleston.
Mackdaddy’s girlfriend, who once was a nurse, believes it was a stroke.  She called the ambulance before she had left her house. 
When the neighbors arrived, Mackdaddy was very pale, and was sweating a great deal on his forehead
When EMS arrived, they gave him some tests.  He seemed confused.  He couldn’t hold up his right arm as long he did the left. 
The EMS have taken him.  They are going to the Wills Point Airport. 
The Care Flight helicopter was somewhere nearby and will meet EMS at the Airport to fly him to Tyler, the regional hospital.
There seems to be some disagreement if Mother Francis in Tyler is the best hospital.  Someone—who, the girlfriend? the neighbors?—recommend Parkland in Dallas. 
Mother Francis has a special ICU ward for stroke victims.  It’s the closest. 
The girlfriend rode with him to the airport.
At the airport, Mackdaddy tells his girlfriend that he is ready to return home. 
The girlfriend is riding in the helicopter with Mackdaddy.
Correction, the girlfriend is not riding in the helicopter.
The oldest son and his wife are driving from Euless to Tyler.
We do not know what his condition is.
And we kept driving south.  The frustration built.  Will we ever get to Charleston?  The panic crept closer.  Knightsmama remained brave.  Occasionally, she let some tears come.  “Is he going to die?”
Mackdaddy enjoys day a park in Pittsboro

A stroke is exactly what Mackdaddy has been afraid of all his life.  Well, that is not exactly true.  He probably never thought much about strokes.  At eighty-one he is stronger than most fifty-year olds.  He has his land that he has been fencing, himself.  He has his cattle.  A second house to remodel. He is active with Lions Club and the Methodist Church. He still has his insurance business. The man doesn’t slow down.  He has never had high blood pressure or any heart or circulation issues.  So stroke wasn’t on his mind.  What he is afraid of is being incapacitated, unable to take care of himself, of being dependent upon others.  He wants anything except being beridden, incoherent.  To live life straight, no detours, until the end. 
“Look,” I said, “At the next highway, I can turn the monster to the right, and we can drive straight through to Tyler.  Just tell me.”
“Let’s keep going. We really don’t know what is happening.  Remember those times with my mother and she turned out to be okay and went home the next day.”
What we are beginning to envision, of course, is the termination of our adventure across America.  If we turned the monster west, there is no coming back.  We will miss the five weeks we had planned for our trip through the south, Charleston, Savannah, Milledgeville and Flannery O’Connor, Saint Augustine, Miami, Key West, Hemingway and Zora Neale Hurston, etc. etc. etc.  I would not be able to drink whiskey at Hank Williams’ grave as instructed by Todd Hoke.
By three o’clock, we had arrived in Charleston.  We already had reservations for James Island County Park.  Knightsmama suggested, “Let’s go to the campground.  Park the trailer.  And take a few minutes to think about things.” 
The nice lady on Knightsmama’s telephone directed us perfectly to the front gate.  Then we needed to drive for a while to arrive at the office and camp store.  Welcoming us were a series of holiday displays of lights and fanciful creatures each tagged with the corporate or non-profit sponsor. Wishing us “Happy Holiday,” “Seasons Greetings,”  “Merry Christmas,”  “Peace on Earth” were the kind folks at Crews Chevrolet and Heritage Trust Federal Credit Union, as well as those at La Ti Da Catering, Boss Disaster Restoration, and EatThisCharleston.com. How nice of them.    Charleston’s Holiday Festival of Lights is one of the highlights of the city’s year, featuring 700 displays and two million lights. Too bad we were catching the ruins of the celebration, which ended on New Year’s Eve.
At the office, we explained our situation to a very kind lady, who did her best to remain composed while Knightsmama and I explained our situation.  A parent in Texas was very ill.  We didn’t know how ill.  We were going to keep our reservation, but we would pay just for tonight. We were pulling in, mainly to have a place to settle, make some phone calls, think, take some deep breaths.  We had some friends in town we were planning on spending time with.  We would call them.  Could we please have a pull-through, if available?  You have wi-fi, correct?
We found our pad, number 43, a pretty spot with a tree and picnic table, just the right distance from the bathrooms, pulled in, but didn’t disconnect the trailer from the truck.  We merely hooked up the electrical and water, and extended the living room slide. Knightsmama and I plopped ourselves at the kitchen table, while the boys kept themselves busy outside with a football.  At some point, the Captain scooted up the tree.
Mackdaddy, Lucy, Captain C, and Dr. J.

First, we called Rick and Melissa, friends from Austin, who had moved to Charleston within the past couple of years.  Rick and Melissa are an exceedingly mature couple, whom we met several years back when we were involved with a foster and adoption agency.  They had fostered a son about the Captain’s age, while we had fostered a wonderful and joyous baby girl. Eventually, they adopted their son, while even after 18 months of caring for our little girl, that option remained unavailable.  She returned to her birth family.  On our side, it is a story of love and broken hearts.  Still, we hope everyone continues to find love, happiness, and safety.  We arranged for Melissa to meet us at our campsite and take us out for coffee and chai as we worked our way to a plan.
Then Knightsmama reinitiated her round of telephone calls back home.  Mackdaddy is now in ICU at Mother Francis. 
Mackdaddy’s girl friend, his two sons and their wives have arrived at the hospital.
The doctor’s had seen him.
Yes, he had had a stroke. Confirmed.
It was a cerebral hemorrhage.
We learned that there are two types of strokes.
One is ischemic.  This means a clot blocks blood to the brain. 
The second is a hemorrhage.  This means a vessel ruptures and begins to bleed.
At this moment, he is not conscious. 
The doctors have been asking if they should schedule surgery.  Surgery would include opening the skull to ascertain if the bleeding can be stopped.
The results of surgery could be that his life is saved, but he would most likely never live independently again.
In other words, if surgery is approved, Mackdaddy will face the kind of life he has always feared.
Mackdaddy’s oldest son is not authorizing surgery.  We are in DNR territory.
Everyone is certain that this is what his wishes would be.
His girlfriend confirms that she and Mackdaddy just had the discussion three days prior after they had left Georgia, where they visited his sister in a nursing home. 
Mackdaddy didn’t think he would be able to shoot himself to avoid such a life.  He didn’t know what he would do.
Everyone in Tyler agrees that Knightsmama needs to get to Texas as soon as possible. 
While she was on the telephone, Knightsmama and I both pulled out our computers, attached ourselves to the internets, and attempted to locate flights that night out of Charleston to either Love Field or Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.  Over and over, we discovered flights that were “unavailable.”  We were creeping up to 5:00, and then I located a flight for $209 one way out of Charleston to DFW at 7:05.  With one stop in Cleveland, I think, it would arrive slightly before midnight. We could get Melissa to drive Knightsmama to the airport.  Renting a car in DFW, she could get to Tyler by 2:00 in the morning or so.  The boys and I would spend the night in Charleston and hit the road in the morning and do our best at driving through, but it probably would take us two days.  We could find a Wal-Mart to boondock in.   No luck, however.  By the time we got on the website again to book the flight, it was no longer available.  What the hell! 
When Melissa arrived at the campsite, darkness had descended in Charleston.  But with a telephone call and few directions, she found us.  She suggested that we call the airlines, and tell them our story.  She had had a similar situation once, and Delta had been very kind.  Knightsmama tried, but couldn’t find a way past the automated voice.  Anyway, we had already made our plan.  We would depart Charleston tonight, head up 29 to Columbia, catch 20 and ride it all the way to Texas.  With luck we would make it to Tyler by mid-afternoon.  Even if Knightsmama took a morning flight, she wouldn’t arrive much earlier.  
            Although it seemed like dawdling in a time when determination was called for, the next two hours in Charleston proved to be essential preparation for the next eighteen hours.  Melissa loaded her SUV with the Waller Grants and drove us to a Starbucks for early evening caffeine and conversation.  Rick met us there with his son, who occupied a corner with the Captain to compare Mindcraft notes.  Such moments rate very high on my list because it means I don’t have to listen Captain Crunches’ latest discoveries and creations.  Knightsmama grabbed her usual Chai-Tea-Latte-No-Water-Non-Fat.  After thirty minutes of general catching up, letting Rick and Melissa tell us about their new life in Charleston, Knightsmama persuaded Melissa and Dr. J to head over to the Harris Teeter to buy provisions for our sixteen hour straight through:  sandwiches, pizza slices, sesame sticks, pretzels, hippie M&M’s,  Blue Sky Sodas, and fake Oreos.  Rick and I got to talk about all sorts of things:  baseball, growing up in St. Louis, his coaching, teaching, and books.  A lot of talk about books, what I have been reading (Wolfe’s Look, Homeward Angel, and Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner), what he has been reading (the middle books of Proust’s Remembrance).  We talked about Catcher and Gatsby.  He mentioned McCarthy’s Suttree, and I remembered seeing the name on a building in Knoxville.  We also talked about what our boys read, and there was no denying the pride both of us felt that we had raised boys who were friends with books. 
            By the time our wives returned, and we all made it back to the campground, I felt like some heavy weight had been lifted. I could see Knightsmama felt the same way.   It was a mere ninety minutes free from the ropes of what-ifs and what-nows.  “Thank you, so much. You can have no idea how helpful it was, after six hours in the car, just to be thinking and talking about something different.”  The previous blog is about the kindness and generosity of our friends and how enriched our trip is because of them.  Rick and Melissa are examples. 
            At 8:00 p.m. we had the monster back on the road.  By 4:00 p.m. the following day we had made it to Tyler State Park and landed the monster.  We overcame a few delays, like missing a exit or two while getting diesel outside Charleston, like a two-hour delay watching a bus burn and halting traffic the entire time, like the innumerable times, it seemed, we had to stop for more diesel.  When one averages 10 miles a gallon and one is traveling over a thousand miles, one does have to stop fairly often. For the first time in five months, we drove further than one tank of gas in a day, and also for the first time, we all shared driving duties. Until now, only I had driven the truck with monster attached. This time, I got us almost to Columbia, Dr. J.  delivered us to Georgia, I got us to through Atlanta before dawn, Knightsmama made it into Mississippi, and so on.  Usually two of us remained awake, one to keep the driver company. I slept right through Birmingham, the town where I was born.  By the time we were crossing Louisiana, I was frazzled and could not withhold expressing my disgust of the state’s road system. 
            Somewhere in Mississippi, Knightsmama began calling again for updates.  Over the night, Mackdaddy had stabilized.
            At this point, no one expected things to get worse.
            His girlfriend reported that his sleeping had been sporadic, and he often seemed agitated.
            He was on medicine to keep his blood pressure down.
            It had been very high.  No one seemed to know the exact numbers but it was 200 something over 100 something. 
            Now it was 138 over 60. 
            He is having trouble remembering people’s names.
            The morning CAT scan revealed that most likely the bleeding had stopped, and the “bruise” inside the brain was not growing. 
            Prognosis was cautious but hopeful.   

 It has been a week since we made the straight through from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Tyler, Texas.  Mackdaddy has been moved from ICU to a “regular room” in Mother Francis.  In a day or two, he will be transferred to a rehab hospital.  His recovery has been quick and positive.  He has use of both sides of his body.  He has walked.  He speaks, if sometimes he can’t locate the correct word.  He exhibits his formidable, droll sense of humor.  We prepare ourselves by saying we don’t expect him to be the Energizer Bunny when he is released from rehab, but who knows what will happen.  Knightsmama spends most of her time at the hospital.  The boys and I have settled into Mackdaddy’s house and keep the cows and dogs fed.  We are trying to find a routine, with difficulty.  Our guess, right now, is that we will be here for some time.  Right now, our guess, is that that Waller Grant has taken a gigantic and time-consuming detour.  Who knows if we will find our way back to the main road?

Soundtrack.  Ferlin Husky  “Detour.”

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Friendship Tour

           We have been on the road for five months, and it has become clear that I am experiencing three different trips at the same time, three separate stories.  The first is the day-to-day travel of the family.  This trip exists totally and fully in the present moment.  One day, we stand above Niagara Falls, another day on the top of the Empire State Building; on still a third we are watching the boys learn to ski in Massanutten; and yet on the fourth tasting a flight of scotches in Knoxville at Boyd's Jig and Reel.  We are always seeing or doing something new and fun. This is the story of a family being together, experiencing their extraordinary lives together.
Captain Crunch Hitches a Ride from General Longstreet
The second trip exists in the near and in the distant past.  On these days, we venture a millennia into our past at Cahokia Indian Mounds or into the seventeenth century at Plimouth Plantation; or we time travel into the eighteenth century at Fort at Four, south of Springfield, Vermont; or Fort Niagara, New York, or the Independence Trail outside of Boston, or Mount Vernon in Virginia.  Another day, we explore the early nineteenth century at Longfellow’s house in Portland or Hawthorne’s in Salem, then travel to Harper’s Ferry for John Brown’s Raid, then Antietam and Gettysburg, add a trip to Seneca Falls, then Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On other days, we live more closely to our own time in the twentieth century, nosing around the workshops belonging to the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, or Henry Heinz at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village.  Maybe it’s the history of air travel at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, or the memorials commemorating the destruction of the Twin Towers or the heroic sacrifice of the passengers of Flight 93.  All of this we have seen, all this time we have crossed, in five months.  This is the story of America, and a family discovering its identity as Americans.
The third trip resides in Twilight Zone fashion in two time periods and two places at once: the here and now and the there and then.   In each month, we have taken time out from “sightseeing in the present day” and from “reliving the historical past” to visit old and distant friends, most of them mine.  At one point recently, driving the highway between Pittsboro and Wilmington, I was describing my surprise at how important this facet of the trip has been to me.  Knightsmama commented that these moments just also might be her favorites.  Of course, I was turning these moments of happiness into a neurotic projection that this trip, with its many visits with past friends, could be viewed as a “Goodbye Tour,” as if I were an old rocker mourning my retirement,  or a fellow with cancer taking a year to say farewell to buddies I will miss when I expire.  I hope it is obvious I did not organize this adventure with such a goal in mind, but, still, if I should pass from this earth next year, the truth would be that I had seen in one year most of my friends, and those visits had been celebratory and rejuvenating.
At Blue Moon Music in Fayatteville, Arkansas
Owned by friend Tim Grear
In addition to that bit of neurosis—ironically celebrating my wonderful life with funeral music in the background—I added a second nugget by pondering my longtime evaluation that, over the years, I had not been a very good friend to those with whom I could and should.  Maybe, I wonder, I don’t know what friendship really is.  I always wanted, I think, friendships conceived from movies or television.  You know, a bunch of Irish guys gathering regularly in a bar in Boston or New York, loudly telling jokes, giving each other shit, talking about how tough their old men were, and then draping their arms around each other and singing “Danny Boy” at last call.  One night in October at an open mike at the Old Worthen Bar in Lowell, Massachusetts, at the Jack Kerouac Festival, I witnessed what I imagined to such a friendship: tough guys being tender and sentimental reading their poems about departed buddies.  The problem, of course, is that I am not Irish; I don’t live on the East Coast, and I don’t hang out in bars.  Heck, I don’t even belong to a bowling league or golf course or do the things that guys seem to do with long time friends.  Oh, I used to.  I played on a softball team for many years; I played golf.  I used to go to bars and attend concerts.  I did these things before and during my first marriage. 
Dr. Carlson Yost, My Office Mate at
Texas AandM 1975-1977
Then I did a couple of strange things.  First, I decided I really wanted to find out if I could be a poet.  I had always written poetry, but in my forties I decided to drop other hobbies and interests and get involved with poets and poetry and the poetry scene.  Second, I divorced, remarried, and began a new family.   In doing this, I got myself out of sync with other men my age.  I mean, most guys, even smart ones, don’t give a hoot about onomatopoeia.  And as my contemporaries were preparing their children for college, I was doing so with one child, but with another I was changing diapers again.  But, you know, as I type this, I know I am just grasping at straws.  And I think I am chasing shadows:  how many men my age, who still work, regularly hang out with men they know from childhood or college or even their time in the service?   For most of us, friendship is something more transitory and tenuous.
On the Friendship Tour, we have visited four friends from high school, one college professor,  two friends from graduate school both now professors, a mentor’s son and his family, a former colleague and his wife, a current colleague and her husband at his family’s house in Virginia over Thanksgiving, a former work-study student who is a stunning success these days, a couple we knew in Austin who now live in North Carolina, a home-school mom friend of Colleen’s who has moved to Virginia, Colleen’s cousin and family, my nephew and his wife and daughter in Brookline, my sister and brother-in-law in North Carolina, a second nephew and his daughter, and two nieces and their husbands.  Here at the last moment in South Carolina, we briefly visited another couple we met in Austin when we were foster parents together.  It seems exhausting, now, listing them all, especially for an introvert like myself.  Only two friends have refused our enticing offers to drop in and entertain them with stories about America, past and present.  
This leads me to one observation about friends and time.  The two friends who politely requested that we not haul the Caravan of Wonder their way are rooted in my Master’s degree days.  Both have had their happiness taken hostage recently.  One, who is more or less my age, has been under-employed for quite some time. I believe he would have made an excellent classics or Biblical scholar, living his quiet life in the serenity of old documents. He is trained both as an English instructor and as a Presbyterian minister.  But choices he has made, mostly, as I understand them, to help others, to live a life of service, have left him, this late in life, searching for fulfilling employment.  Our friendship lapsed for many years, but one of the blessings of the past few years is the brief, nearly weekly emails we exchange   The other friend, one of my graduate advisors and slightly older, has had, as far as I know, a productive career in communications for major corporations.  Then in April, her first beautiful son, at twenty-eight, died in a motorcycle accident.  Just like that, grief invades the house.  Although I often think of how important she and her husband were in contributing to whatever I have become, the truth is I have not contacted her in twenty years.  I understand that the last thing she needed at this difficult time is the responsibility for some grown-up grad student reliving his wandering hippie days. 
With Lee Hisle in Mystic, Connecticut
In thinking about these two friends, however, I began to consider what I know of all the   friends and family we had been visiting.  Among them or their immediate families, there are a death from cancer following our visit, four survivors of breast cancer, one with lupus, the deaths of three children, diabetes and other significant health issues, a near fatal automobile accident, a near fatal heart attack, debilitating allergies, narcolepsy, a malpractice lawsuit (settled in the friend’s favor), tenure issues and re-created careers, several re-created careers actually, a murdered brother, and eight divorces.  Who knows how many prescriptions for anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, and insomnia?  It is astonishing to me how much pain and hurt and fear and grief that we survive.    
When I think of true friends, deep friends, the Irish brothers in the bar kind of friends, I know that I have not stood shoulder to shoulder with many of these individuals as their tribulations fell upon them. In almost all cases, they have lived far away and our communication has been sporadic.  I was not the person, they called when trouble struck. Why do I think that I should have been?  Some part of me is a person who desires to be needed, or to be the kind of person who is needed.  But there is another person in me whose emotional life may be deep, but its reservoir is quickly depleted.  I seem to be at my best in two situations:  a brief and intense conversation for quick problem solving, or a long, slow slog where there are moments for recharging.  No one needs to know this, I suppose, except me and those who might wish something other from me.  They may need something from me that will be danged difficult to pull out.  But that does not mean I am not affected by their pain.  Sure, I often feel guilty that I have not been a better friend, but I also suffer from a sympathetic misery.  Through past affections, our souls are somehow still in harmony. 
Sean Carpenter Makes Thanksgiving Special
I think I know what I have been needing from them—those whom I have been visiting—a little connection to the past that might help me understand what the long slog has been about.  Life is long and so much of it gets placed into compartments:  close nuclear family; high school and college; work and the people at work—with several jobs there are several groups of people—; hobbies and entertainments and the people who also care about such; children and their teachers, coaches, and friends and their friends’ parents.  Relationships are short lived, like agave cacti that bloom brilliantly but briefly.  We move, we are transplanted, we quit, we are laid off, we are fired, we divorce, we marry, we succeed, we fail and rebuild, or give up, we become ill, we stay in one place while everyone else moves on, we hop into an RV and travel for a year.  In all this change, how do we maintain some singular sense of who we are?  Maybe you, maybe others, find it easy, but since I left for college at eighteen years of age, I have found it extraordinarily difficult to be just one person, the same to all.  In one place, I have been class clown; in another, I was a budding scholar; with a third group, a dreamy cosmic cowboy; at home, I tried to be the good, responsible son, when I wasn’t pissed off.   I played golf, I played softball, I became a poet, husband, teacher, father, administrator, home owner, book reviewer and essayist, divorced guy, editor and publisher, entrepreneur, failed entrepreneur, husband again, bee keeper, gardener, lousy lover, amazing lover, reactionary conservative on one issue, bleeding heart liberal on another. All this in no particular order.  Repeated, blended, mixed-up.  When I was moving forward, I thought it all made sense; one thing evolving into the other.  It no longer makes sense.  Now looking back, as I think about each stage or phase, I see a great number of missed opportunities for lasting friendships with wonderful people.  Some have tried to penetrate my hesitancy and reserve; others have resisted my curiosity and idolatry. 
The Grave of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on friendship is a peculiar rhapsody attempting to define this important relationship.  Because I am an introvert—something Knightsmama often points out to me with a tone close to accusation—this passage caught my attention.  “I chide society; I embrace solitude, and yet I am not so ungrateful as not to see the wise, the lovely, and the noble-minded, as from time to time they pass my gate.  Who hears me, who understands me, becomes mine—a possession for all time.”  All aspects of his description speak to me.  Yes, I do criticize society.  Thoreau’s statement that he had three chairs—one for himself, one for friends, and one for society—makes a great deal of sense to me.  I don’t desire much society.  But to find someone who accepts and understand you—in spite of your need for solitude—ah! there you have something.
Becoming friends is a bit like falling in love.  Sometimes, it is quick—a recognition of mutual mirroring.  Sometimes, a friendship develops slowly through repetition, our lives crossing through shared concerns.  I have had friendships that began and ended abruptly, inexplicably almost, some fully contained in a particular time and place, some almost dispassionate that have lasted for years.  But all have been expansive, enlarging me.  Emerson again:  “The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society.  This method betrays itself along the whole history of our personal relations.  The instinct of affection revives the hope of union with our mates, and the returning sense of insulation recalls us from the chase.  Thus every man passes his life in the search after friendship.”
So far Waller Grant, my family and I, have been blessed to be welcomed and nurtured by a long list of generous people, some family members, all friends.  Maybe someday I will write about these people fully, identifying them, describing our spotted histories together.  But something in me resists names and plots.  With those come conflicts and character analyses and a kind of detachment I do not welcome.   Right now, I am writing about Waller Grant’s stories exploring America.  In the old days, I would have laid it all out, a confessional poet, a self-serving memoirist.  But this is one of the changes, recently.  The intimate no longer seeks to display itself.  All of these folks have been kind to me and my family.  I just want to live with that for awhile. 
Todd and Meg Hoke Help Knightsmama and Kati Lueducke
Nurse My Son The Philosopher in Hendersonville, NC
As we drive around the United States, I think I am aware of “the many,” the many individuals that make up this nation, and, in my case, the many people that I, myself, have been and can be.  What I am looking for is “the one.”  E Pluribus Unum.  I think of the line from Tennyson’s poem about the archetypal traveler, Ulysses:  “I am a part of all that I have met.” I turn the line around, “All that I have met is a part of me.”  These past five months I have seen that the people who have become a part of me are gigantically generous people, caring, creative people.  I thank them for including me in their sphere of influence.    

Soundtrack Double Feature:  REM, “Everybody Hurts.”

Simon and Garfunkel: “Old Friends.”